Salvador Dali Surrealist Stage Curtain Goes Under The Hammer At Lempertz

“It must be quite clear to anyone looking at Dalí’s curtain and decor for ‘Mad Tristan’ that the celebrated Catalan illusionist does not design ballets – he allows dancers to take part in his paintings.” – Richard Buckle, Modern Ballet Design, London 1955

Salvador Dalí’s lesser known creations for the stage comes to the auction block 3 December at a private sale at Kunsthaus Lempertz auction house in Brussels. The surrealist created nearly 40 theater pieces including this monumental painted canvas backdrop that show a tormented depiction of Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde.

Through his paintings, sculptures and not least his graphic works, Salvador Dalí’s unique oeuvre achieved enormous popularity over the course of the 20th century. Another facet of his work is no less important, but much less well known: his exploration of the means involved in film and theatre, which influenced Dalí’s art for many years.

This turning to the stage enabled him to extend his – in many respects – transgressive gesture in a medial sense as well. Dalí’s occupation with the performing arts strikingly reveals how the artist approached the stage as a conceptual as well as concrete experiment, in order to seek new forms of expression for an art between Surrealism and psychoanalysis, between his reception of Richard Wagner’s work and the Ballets Russes. A complex, richly allusive group of works developed over the years. Compared with the rest of Dalí’s oeuvre, it has been only rudimentarily surveyed and little research has been done on it. 

The overwhelming stage curtain for “Mad Tristan” – according to its subtitle, the “first paranoiac ballet based on the eternal myth of love and death” – is among the rare documents of Salvador Dalí’s radical theatre. Dalí occupied himself with the theatre primarily in the 1930s and 1940s. Between 1927 and 1982 he worked on no less than 39 pieces for the theatre, only part of which were ever performed. A great number of these projects never moved beyond the draft phase on account of their sheer unfeasibility. 


Over the years Salvador Dalí became proficient in various theatre-related tasks and increasingly took on the role of an intermediary active universal artist (cf. Simone Brandes, Salvador Dalí und das Theater, Petersberg 2012, p. 11): he conceived and designed material for ballets, operas, and plays. He created stage sets, costumes, and decorations and sometimes personally served as director, choreographer, and librettist. In collaboration with renowned writers, choreographers and directors, such as Federico García Lorca, Léonide Massine and Luchino Visconti, he realised a total of 18 projects on the world’s most important stages, including New York’s Metropolitan Opera House, Venice’s Teatro La Fenice, London’s Covent Garden, Rome’s Teatro Eliseo and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu. 

Visual artists’ engagement with the stage was nothing new at that time, on the contrary: in his cooperation with George de Cueva’s Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, Dalí was stepping directly into the tradition of artists like Pablo Picasso, Juan Gris and Joan Miró, who had already worked together with the ensemble of the Ballets Russes under Serge Diaghilev. “Tristan fou”, from the years 1936 to 1938, marks the starting point of Salvador Dalí’s theatrical oeuvre. In his “paranoiac spectacle,” the artist not only took on the role of the librettist, choreographer and director but also that of stage and costume designer. In terms of content, the piece is founded on a wide-ranging exploration of Richard Wagner’s work – a thematic frame of reference that would shape a whole series of Dalí’s productions. Dalí has created a theatre of dreams – or, actually, nightmares – that seems to be formally based on Wagner’s idea of the Gesamtkunstwerk. The unusual poetics of his intermedial images can already be noted in the hybrid libretto’s superimposed chains of association, which are able to evoke a kind of imagined theatre of images in the minds of the audience. 


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